By MICHAEL MAROT
AP Sports Writer
Brad Keselowski celebrated his first pole win of the season — and perhaps the most memorable of his career — from afar.
After waiting nearly a full hour Thursday evening, the Team Penske driver watched NASCAR’s chief scorer Kyle McKinney finally pluck the No. 1 ball out of a random draw — giving the 2012 series champion the top starting position when the Cup season resumes Sunday at Darlington Raceway.
“1st. Woooooo,” Keselowski wrote on Twitter.
He will be joined on the front row by Alex Bowman of Hendrick Motorsports. Matt DiBenedetto, Kyle Busch and Aric Almirola close out the top five starting spots.
For some, NASCAR’s revised system worked like a dream. Keselowski, the 2018 Southern 500 winner, jumped from 10th in the standings to first on the 36-car starting grid.
For others, like points leader Kevin Harvick, things didn’t end up so well. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver drew the No. 6 slot.
And aside from the luck of the draw, there was nothing the drivers could do except wait, watch and hope.
Series officials split the drivers into three groups of 12 based on points, filling spots 1-12, 13-24 and 25-36 with a random draw. Now, without qualifications, practice runs or fans, those cars will line up on one of NASCAR’s most prestigious tracks for the first major race since March.
Most have spent their time, especially the last couple of weeks, using simulators to prepare.
“To be honest with you, I kind of get sick in the thing.” Clint Bowyer told the television audience before drawing the No. 13 starting spot. “So I’ve been working on things like the entrance to pit road, something that is very, very difficult at this track. It’s going to be a green race track and that’s something everybody’s going to deal with.”
The focus won’t just be on the lead pack.
Ryan Newman will make his first start since a frightening crash at the season-opening Daytona 500. The Roush Fenway Racing driver was cleared to drive following a run at, yes, Darlington and will start 21st.
Two-time Daytona 500 winner and 2003 series champion Matt Kenseth will return to the track for the first time since November 2018 after coming out of retirement to replace the fired Kyle Larson for Chip Ganassi’s team. He drew the No. 12 slot.
“Race week is here! In some ways I feel like I did my rookie year… mostly because I just had to wait on @DaleJr,” Kenseth posted on his Twitter account earlier this week.
Each car will carry the name of a front-line worker during the COVID-19 pandemic, and after weeks of waiting to race, things will rev up in a harry.
Series officials also announced Tuesday they had expanded the schedule to include 20 races between Sunday and late June — nine in the elite Cup Series.
Now, after taking the first step toward racing since early March, the drivers are eager for the biggest restart yet.
“Heck yeah, let’s go,” said Austin Dillon, the Richard Childress driver who will start 16th. “Just happy to be getting back out on the track.”